I've heard about the power of affirmation. Some even say repeating words out loud regularly can make things happen in the world. I suppose I’m too dour to believe that. But over the past few years I found that affirmation is in fact powerful, not as an effort of will but as a byproduct of committing yourself in public—with your posture, your voice, and your presence—to a truth.
I have sometimes volunteered to read Bible passages at Sunday services. A few years ago, I was assigned to read from one of the more obscure letters. I had no recollection of reading the assigned scripture before, but as I prepared, one passage suddenly demanded my attention, and I was eager to read it for our congregation. That Sunday, a couple of hundred people wearing politely blank expressions looked up at me at the lectern. And I found myself affirming this:
For God did not give us
a spirit of cowardice,
but of power,
I did not expect the force of what came from my own mouth—I found myself saying the words boldly. I was not straining to affirm them; the act of reading affirmed them. My confidence vouched for the ancient words, almost despite myself. Without really trying, my voice affirmed that they were the most important thing we all could hear.
I could not recall ever saying something with such conviction in public before. I began to wonder if, in my previous readings of the Bible, my gaze just moseyed over the words, as if I were taking a really long eye exam. I even began to fear that not only had I never said anything with conviction, but I had also never felt anything with conviction. I began to wonder whether reading in public more often might help me understand and affirm those passages more deeply. So I began to read weekly at the 9 a.m. weekday services.
The Unexpected Outcomes of Public Reading
In the weekday services, a few dozen people looked up at me when I stood to read and a few dozen others watch online. As I had hoped, regularly reading the passages in public made me affirm them, and took me deeper into their meaning, but I was surprised to find that my affirming yes to the words can also mean saying a chagrined uh-oh along the way.
For instance, the church posts these videos online, and viewing them helped me improve my delivery. But of course, seeing yourself is shocking. For one thing, on the videos, I shuffled up to the lectern like an old man. Well, I am seventy-one. It was a shock, however, to see how obvious it was that I am an old man. I redoubled my efforts to stand up straight, and climb the steps up to the lectern with a little spring in my steps, trying to stride as forcefully—and youthfully—as I can into the camera’s merciless view.
Even without the video, I was forced to feel the effects of age when I read. The simple act of reading isn’t as easy as I’d once thought. For instance, the advice for public speaking is to keep eye contact with your listeners. However, I wear glasses and have poor peripheral vision. Sometimes when I read, the videos showed my head nodding up and down as if I were trying to win first prize in an apple-bobbing contest. Other times age has nothing to do with it. Bible passages aren’t always smooth. The names can be tricky if Hebrew is not your first language. I’m not always sure when the writers have finished zigging one way and are zagging back again. The translators have other issues to worry about and apparently don’t fret much about what it’s like to read the passage in front of strangers. All of that has led to flubs. Once, for instance, I said “Saul” when I should have said “David.” The listeners didn’t blink. Either they instantly made the correction in their minds, or they were a little lost too.
Sometimes that very drive to do the readings as well as possible only sabotaged my efforts. For instance, on my way to church, I usually suck on a cough drop to make sure I don’t sound hoarse (the vocal cords don’t improve with age.) One day, unfortunately, I got up to the lectern, and I realized I still had a cough drop in my mouth. I thought I could brazen it out, but the ultra-sensitive microphone caught the clicking of it against my teeth. I had to mutter a quick “excuse me,” turn my back, and spit the cough drop out into my handkerchief.
Affirmation Arrives Anyway
But none of that seemed to matter. Despite the ramifications of age and accident the affirmations were still drawing me into the God of his word.
Once in a while, I found myself saying yes to things I never grasped before. Such as another prophet’s reassurance:
But for you who fear my name, there will arise
The sun of justice with its healing rays.
Sure, we all talk about justice. But until I read the words aloud for others to contemplate, I think justice had seemed to me a cold, abstract thing. Reading that passage showed me that we can bask in justice’s warmth and energy.
Other times my affirmation doesn’t require I understand more. I’ve learned affirmation is not like getting an A on a quiz; sometimes it’s more like an “incomplete” and knowing you have to retake the course the next semester, and the next, and so on, ad infinitum. Consider the day I read:
God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM”; and He said, “Thus you shall say to the sons of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’”
Here is something the sages and thinkers have pondered at least since humanity began to write about it and have at best scratched the surface. This cannot be “understood.” It can only be affirmed. We can only say yes to God’s revelation of his personal name.
Other times deeper meant feeling something negative, as when I read this from a prophet:
You have sown much, but have brought in little;
you have eaten, but have not been satisfied;
You have drunk, but have not been exhilarated;
have clothed yourselves, but not been warmed;
And whoever earned wages
earned them for a bag with holes in it.
Maybe the process was also preparing me for another reading. In the fall of 2021, my daughter Ruth was gracious enough to ask me to read at her wedding in Spain. She and her fiancé sent me a list of suggested readings in English for the bilingual ceremony. One was a passage from the first letter of John. The same verses had been read at the wedding of her mother and me thirty-eight years earlier. I don’t think I had read it carefully since then. Months later I found myself in a little church in Don Quixote country. As more than half of those present spoke little or no English, I had to put as much as I could into my tone and posture. I found myself proclaiming:
…let us love one another, because love is of God; everyone who loves is begotten by God and knows God.
I felt at last the letter’s power and mystery. How can we love that much? That’s as daunting as “be ye perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect”! Yet, saying yes to it unlocks a more powerful way of living. These words add a new dimension to our seeing; they grant us a whole new landscape of possibilities. They unlock both our hearts and imaginations and enable us to set out on new adventures—if we can affirm them in our hearts and in our words and, most of all, in our lives.
Choosing to Confront the Words
Affirmation that what God says is true came to me when I forced myself to confront the words and when I was compelled to do more than silently survey them, but bring each one into myself. I’m still juggling the need to keep my eye on the words as they meander down the page like the people of Israel wandering across the desert, yet at the same time make sure the listeners know I’m reading to them, not myself. But of course, all this is the spiritual life: slowly and painfully coming to see ourselves more honestly and trying to take a few steps to improve.
Have I improved—as a reader or human being? I don’t know. As a reader, I may be doing okay. The people at church seem to be listening. But I myself am practiced in appearing to listen to others while my mind meanders off on its own errands. I still hope I’m doing well but must accept there’s no sure answer. Which of course is also an emblem of the spiritual life—the pilgrimage I take with a crowd of people, chosen apparently at random, with whom I connect in uncertain ways at unlikely times and places.
I continue to read at morning services. It is, of course, about as undemanding a task as one could choose. If I were a bigger, bolder person I’d do something bigger and bolder. But I do what seems most suited for me. I read. I try to affirm the truths that confront me, even if they bring puzzlement or shame. I keep trying to put myself in a place where I sometimes find myself saying yes to these perplexing, urgent, and cosmos-opening words.
Cover image by Stephen Radford.